Giving Up on Aliens. Or Not.


Heather asked about the SETI telescope at the Hat Creek Radio Observatory, whether having its budget zeroed out mattered in any way.  Had it ever found anything? Could it be re-purposed?  No it hasn’t and yes it can, but I don’t care because, ma’am, I am seriously running out of patience with the whole enterprise.  I never wanted to meet intelligent extraterrestrials in the first place.

I should be more respectful.  Serious people have put serious money into searches for extraterrestrial intelligence. SETI isn’t any one project; it’s a number of projects — most dead, some ongoing — that look in different ways for different kinds of signals beamed at us by extraterrestrial civilizations, or maybe just leaking out of their TVs.  SETI’s have been going on since at least the late 1970’s, when for a decade or so NASA was funding them.  After Congress cut the funding, as the SETIites put it, “researchers and interested members of the public saw a diminished chance to answer, within their lifetimes, the profound question addressed by SETI.”  So they raised money and started their own searches, mostly using time borrowed on telescopes.  They didn’t find anything.

One of the searches, by the SETI Institute, had millions in start-up money from Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen to build its own telescope, or rather, 350 small radio telescopes working as one.  They started by building 42 telescopes at Hat Creek in northern California and called them the Allen Telescope Array.  They swept the sky for signals that would yell at them, and they focused on individual stars for signals that barely whispered.  They didn’t find anything.

Then, just about the time that the Kepler satellite found a thousand stars with planets, a thousand other solar systems that who knows, might hold radio-broadcasting life, the Allen Telescope Array had its funding cut too.  The reason was hard economic times; the array couldn’t even raise operating costs.  It’ll keep operating for more standard astronomical reasons – like looking at our galaxy’s center – but as one of the SETI Institute’s astronomers told the San Jose Mercury News,  “the Niña, Pinta and Santa Maria [are] being put into dry dock.”

Not to worry:  though no SETI has ever found anything, nobody’s giving up on aliens.  Another SETI is using time on a large radio telescope in Green Bank, VA to follow up on Kepler Objects of Interest, called KOIs.  Then they’ll put the KOIs into, among other places, an outfit called [email protected], which uses the downtime of thousands of citizen computers around the world to analyze the data.  [email protected] has been analyzing data from various searches for over 10 years; it hasn’t found anything.

And in the last month, one of the mainstays of the SETI Institute, an astronomer named Jill Tartar, won a TED prize that came with $100,000.  She’s using it “to empower Earthlings everywhere to become active participants in the ultimate search for cosmic company.”  In other words, she and the other SETIites are starting setiQuest, which is at present a little vague but seems to include putting data already taken into a citizen science website called Galaxy Zoo, where the hundreds of thousands of capable Zooites will look at it for signals from those extraterrestrials.

I think I’m impatient mostly with the SETIs’ over-excited prose – “profound questions,” “Earthlings everywhere” – and with the vanishingly small probability of their finding signals that convincingly come from extraterrestrials.  And extraterrestrials are way too far away and our lifetimes way too short to even trade signals — which would probably be mutually incomprehensible anyway.  I personally already know enough incomprehensible entities.  But I sure have to admire those SETIs and their never ever, not once, not even when faced with penury and improbability and total failure, never for one minute giving up.

Credits:  radio telescopes – Jose Maria Cuellar; UFO’s – Markus Ram

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15 thoughts on “Giving Up on Aliens. Or Not.

  1. Ann: Thanks for this great answer to my question. Sounds as if it was high time to scuttle the Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria!

  2. anne —

    nice succinct reprise of the “search-for-intelligent life” enterprise. as for why we haven’t contacted extragalactic life, the title of tom siegfried’s editorial in the april 24, 2010 science news is as good an explanation as any: “An intelligent ET would probably stay home”. that idea, plus many others, was covered in paul davies’ “The Eerie Silence”, published last year. the review of davies’ book in the Times presents several of his suppositions (or rationalizations, depending on how you look at it):

    i think the most important idea in the book was davies’ suggestion that we pay attention to our own home and our own species, just in case we are unique:

    “It would be a tragedy of literally cosmic proportions if we succeeded in annihilating the one truly intelligent species in the entire universe.”

  3. That’s just my outsider opinion, Heather. Maybe if I spent more time with the SETI people, I’d opine differently. My problem is, their rhetoric is just so annoying.

  4. if i read you correctly, you’re questioning some of the basic assumptions underlying the Search. that mathematical calculation about the vast number of stars and galaxies etc is just that — mathematical. it lacks the most fundamental constants — like the probability that life can evolve, a number that is impossible to define, since we have only 1 datapoint. Searchers also make anthropocentric assumptions — e.g., that there is only one kind of intelligence. perhaps another species has evolved that has an “intelligence” that we wouldn’t recognize. (yes, i was a big fan of science fiction in my younger days.) i don’t understand why people are so het up about what novelties may lie out there. i guess i’m just a homebody — i agree with Candide that “We must cultivate our garden.”

  5. That is the emotions, but what of the facts?

    “the profound question addressed by SETI.”

    The question of “others” (gods, aliens) is a longstanding question in human history. So yes, profound.

    “though no SETI has ever found anything”

    Not relevant; the searched volume vs search volume is, i.e. whether it is yet an exhaustive search or not. It is far from that, I believe the SETI institute maintain something like 10^-6 searched.

    “the vanishingly small probability of their finding signals that convincingly come from extraterrestrials.”

    Those are unknowns. We know from the speed with which life started on Earth that abiogenesis is generally really easy, and we know from Kepler that habitables are really many.

    What remains is the contingency of biology. Functions like optical sensitivity is probably common in biospheres. Is intelligence? SETI is one way to answer that.

    “to even trade signals”

    That is outside the SETI search relevancy. Who now is using “over-excited prose”?

    I am standing on the other side of a great divide, myself tired of the “prose-instead-of facts” and unrelenting stubborness of not giving science in some particular topic a real chance. Ideologies we have enough of.

    [One may well ask if SETI is valuable and when it has passed its “best before” date. Other long standing research is abiogenesis, string theory, quantum computing, high temperature superconductors, …

    But alas, that seems always to be “a topic for another day”. :-/]

  6. Paul Davies is an interesting guy, isn’t he, Skeptico? I think it’s the “intelligence” part of the extraterrestrials that seems unworthy of scientific attention. The planet searches billed as ET searches are turning up so many weird solar systems that now ours looks like it’s the weird one out. And extremophile research finds weird life (not including life based on arsenic, apparently)here on earth. Both these fields are funded by astrobiology money; neither of them cares whether the things it finds are intelligent.

  7. Maybe we should keep very, very quiet about living on this planet…maybe we don’t recognise “clever” when it’s looking straight at us????

  8. I’m still thinking about that medieval alien reality show. That’d get ’em talking! The X Files Factor?

  9. Dear Rosie and dear Tim, I don’t understand what either one of you wrote. Rosie, surely you’re not thinking of earth people as clever? Ok, they’re clever, they really are. And Tim, I don’t know about a medieval alien reality show. I don’t get out much.

  10. Erm…well, I think earth people have room for improvement and I think Tim may have hit upon a universal money-making television idea. As always, last word on nothing, is actually about everything. Great site.

  11. Humanity failing to find extraterrestrial life within my lifetime kinda feels like… someone telling me that Santa is fake when I was a kid.

  12. Dear Gerry, I think if you tailor your definition of “life,” you should be ok. I mean, nobody should have to lose faith. Yours, Ann

  13. Fermi is still the front runner. It really is the mother of all paradoxes.
    The probabilities just don’t match the current null data. Yet we know that intelligence is a reality.

    Given such a hiatus, most peoples’ opinion, mine included, has as much to do with what they want to be true as logic.

    For eventual contact, I’m unashamedly on the optimistic side (unless you’re Stephen Hawking and think ET will be malevolent).

    If galactically slow electromagnetic contact is the only game in town, then some persistent and altruistic ET might be fishing with it. However, if technology and physics allow something more practical, then our current telecommunication methods will be in the same ET history bin as smoke signals and pigeons.

    This would be especially true if the use-by-date of electromagnetic communications technology occurs before a galactic radio conversation could be completed. Given the latter could easily be hundreds of years, it would be an confident scientist who declared our current limitations absolute. Mind you, history is littered with them.

  14. Roy, I think you’re making some of the same points as Torbjorn above. And I think the way scientists like to say the same thing is, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Which is certainly true and it’s fine with me that people keep looking. ET’s are just hard for me to get interested in.

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